Inside Story

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5343 words

Journalism in the Trump era

24 February 2017

The story, so far, of the new president’s media strategy 


Dealing with the opposition: Donald Trump pauses to speak to media as he walks to the South Lawn of the White House earlier this month. Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Dealing with the opposition: Donald Trump pauses to speak to media as he walks to the South Lawn of the White House earlier this month. Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Days after the US presidential election, the Oxford Dictionaries pronounced the word of the year to be “post-truth.” At the time of Trump’s inauguration, the Macquarie Dictionary announced that its word of the year was “fake news.” Then, in the first week of the Trump presidency, the phrase dominating the news was “alternative facts.”

These three terms signal that the political earthquake wrought by Donald Trump has also induced a seismic shock in the politics of journalism. Commercially, the advent of the Trump era was a boon for the media. As early as February 2016, the head of CBS Corporation, Les Moonves, said the Trump phenomenon “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…” The money, he added, was “rolling in.” Throughout the year, the cable news channels profited from the higher ratings Trump brought. The respected NPR media analyst David Folkenflik reported that CNN earned about US$100 million more than expected, largely thanks to fascination with Trump. The first debate between Clinton and Trump was the most watched ever, with an audience of eighty-four million viewers, 25 per cent more than the first Obama–Romney debate in 2012.

But the financial benefits have been accompanied by unprecedented professional and political challenges. In a vicious, polarising election like this one, it was inevitable that the media would be criticised by both sides. Nor is it surprising that a Pew Research Center survey after the election found only one in five respondents gave the press a grade of B or higher for its performance, and half gave it an F. But the intensity of Trump’s conflicts with the media is something new, and there is every sign that they are going to be a feature of his presidency.

Most Trump voters (74 per cent) thought the press was too tough on Trump and too easy on Clinton (78 per cent). This is at least partly a result of Trump’s frequent and combative attacks on the media, building on the established Republican playbook of attacking the liberal biases of the news media. A 2016 Gallup poll, for example, found that 51 per cent of Democrats have a fair amount or a great deal of trust in the media, but only 14 per cent of Republicans do. The economist Paul Krugman called these accusations against the media a case of “working the refs – screaming about bias and unfair treatment, no matter how favourable the treatment actually is.” It has been “a consistent, long-term political strategy on the right,” he wrote, and “it so often works.”

Trump took this to new heights, lambasting the media in general. When it looked as if he was bound to lose, he made the media part of the way the election was loaded against him: “The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary – but also at many polling places – SAD.” Part of his standard pitch at rallies was to sound off at the media: they “will attack you, they will slander you, they will seek to destroy your career and your family.” And he often singled out individual journalists and organisations, banning the Washington Post from attending his rallies for six weeks, and insulting NBC reporter Katy Tur at a rally (at which the crowd turned towards her and booed).

His attacks were as compulsive as they were calculated. When he feels insulted or even just opposed, writes the Washington Post’s Colbert King, “he succumbs to a need to go all out after the source.” British political scientist David Runciman observed that Trump is “the most childish politician I have ever encountered.” After the first debate, Tramp said that his microphone “was terrible. I wonder, was it set up that way on purpose?” During the second debate, he accused the two moderators of favouring Clinton and complained that it was “three on one.” His petulance may have looked highly unpresidential, but perhaps his supporters thought it was further proof of his authenticity.

It is not surprising that his hostility didn’t abate after the election. Indeed, victory has probably given him and his inner circle a sense of vindication, which is unlikely to moderate attitudes. He abruptly cancelled a meeting with the New York Times, complaining by tweet that “they continue to cover me inaccurately and with a nasty tone!” Not long before, Trump had convened a meeting with TV journalists but had given them no chance to ask questions; instead, he subjected them to a stream of insults and complaints.

Trump “broke all the rules of American politics (and politesse) on his way to proving false a near-unanimous expert consensus that his election was not possible,” wrote Charles Lane in the Washington Post. Most commentators had thought that his misogyny and xenophobia, lack of experience in public office, and manifest character flaws would rule him out. That such a person, so far from what was thought to be the American mainstream, could be elected therefore raised for many the issue of whether he had been properly subjected to scrutiny by the news media.

The first preliminary point to be made in answering this question is that by most conventional measures the media didn’t favour Trump. He was editorially endorsed by only two of the top one hundred newspapers in the country by circulation, with fifty-seven endorsing Clinton. (In 2012, Obama was endorsed by forty-one, and Romney by thirty-five.) Thomas Patterson’s extensive content analysis found that coverage of both candidates was strongly negative, but Trump’s even more so than Clinton’s. As well, Clinton raised almost double the amount of money that Trump did, and so had far more to spend on advertising.

Two further preliminary points are that the mainstream media were reacting to the newsworthy events of the day, and that they covered major developments diligently. The coverage of the two party conventions and the three TV debates was as good as any Democratic strategist would have wished. Trump’s aggression created numerous embarrassments for his candidacy. For a few weeks, the campaign was dominated by Trump’s lewd comments about his dealings with women and by accusations from around a dozen women who charged that he had behaved inappropriately towards them.

According to Patterson’s figures, negative coverage of Trump peaked in early-mid October at around 90 per cent. But in the final two weeks of the campaign his coverage improved and Clinton’s negative coverage peaked. The turnaround was the result of FBI director James Comey’s announcement that the investigation into Clinton’s emails had reopened. This greatly damaged Clinton, but the media had no alternative but to report such momentous news. After the election, of course, the flimsiness of Comey’s grounds was revealed.

Trump’s media skills

It is easy to underestimate Trump’s media manipulation skills. Most basically, he is a practised television performer. He became a household name mainly through his starring role in fourteen seasons of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice, as well as other self-promotional activities, including associations with Miss Universe and World Wrestling Entertainment. As the Washington Post’s Drew Harwell and Mary Jordan write, “Trump has a practised understanding of what grabs TV viewers: saying or doing the unexpected, speaking in short sound bites, repeating himself, not appearing scripted, being blunt and over-the-top.”

This experience gave him a huge advantage during the Republican primaries. Visually, he often dominated the debates. He gained an early advantage by doing something that no presidential candidate had ever done: he dialled into cable news shows asking to go live to comment on what they were saying. “He’s a big personality in the age of celebrity,” said Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican staffer. This “early, unfiltered exposure” helped him win the nomination. He was also likely to say the bizarre or the shocking; what other presidential candidate would boast of how strong his support was by pointing his finger at the crowd like he was shooting a handgun, and exclaiming, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose votes.”

Even in the major contest, where coverage of the two candidates tends to be slavishly equal, Trump consistently gained 15 per cent more coverage than Clinton. Trump’s “dominant presence stemmed from the fact that his words and actions were ideally suited to journalists’ story needs,” wrote Thomas Patterson. Trump’s way of talking – his claims that immigrants were rapists, murderers and terrorists, for instance – captured journalists’ attention. He used nicknames, such as “Crooked Hillary,” Crazy Bernie” or “lying Ted Cruz,” that the media duly reported. Much of the coverage was critical or at least double-edged, but he often set the agenda.

Trump’s “distinct inability to talk in a straight line” makes him very hard to pin down in an interview. During the second presidential debate, co-moderator Anderson Cooper asked him if he had engaged in unwanted kissing and groping. His first reply was simply, “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” Cooper asked again if he had done those things. “No, I have not. And I will tell you that I’m going to make our country safe. We’re going to have borders in our country, which we don’t have now. People are pouring into our country, and they’re coming in from the Middle East and other places.” Of course, the episode was a huge minus for Trump, but it may have been even worse if he had been subjected to prolonged questioning.

Trump was very good at maximising his exposure while minimising or neutralising critical scrutiny. More than any other political candidate in history, he used Twitter, and his tweets often commanded headline attention. Never one for false modesty, he has called himself the Hemingway of 140 characters. Twitter is a “medium that suits his blunt invective rhetoric, to kick-start the misinformation feedback loop,” wrote media analyst Matthew Jordan. Other views and criticisms, although abundant, were always playing catch-up.

Trump held big, televisually interesting rallies; he gave interviews to favoured figures on Fox News, and occasionally elsewhere; he tweeted. As a result, he was constantly in the news, often setting the news agenda. After late July, though, he didn’t hold another full news conference until he had won the election. He was everywhere in the media, but the media were rarely able to interrogate him in any depth.

Trump’s indifference to truth

Trump built his early political career on a palpable falsehood – that Obama was born outside the United States and so not eligible to be president – and kept it going, with help from Fox News, for five years “dodging, winking and joking,” after documentary evidence proved otherwise. As late as 2015, on CNN, he said, “I don’t know. I really don’t know” about the president’s birthplace. Finally, in September 2016, he surrendered to reality, but with characteristic bravado. After days of build-up, he took reporters on a tour of Trump Tower, got endorsements from some retired military officers, and finally, in a single sentence, said he was finished with the rumour, which he then brazenly blamed Clinton for having started. Trump’s transformation of defence into counterattack was a continuing feature of the campaign.

In his book The Art of the Deal, Trump (or at least his ghostwriter) wrote, “I play to people’s fantasies… I call it truthful hyperbole.” In business, much of this hyperbole was directed towards selling a positive future vision, which often didn’t eventuate. In political campaigning, it was more frequently directed towards discrediting his opponents. As the Economist observed, “Consider how far Donald Trump is estranged from fact. He inhabits a fantastical realm where Barack Obama’s birth certificate was faked, the president founded Islamic State, the Clintons are killers and the father of a rival [Ted Cruz] was with Lee Harvey Oswald before he shot John F. Kennedy.” “Mr Trump appears not to care whether his words bear any relation to reality, so long as they fire up voters,” the magazine added in another article. Political campaigning seemed to reward outrageousness more than being truthful. So when Trump went for his opponents’ jugular, such as in his charge that had Obama founded Islamic State, his opponents and/or the media had to devote great resources trying to prove a negative. They were fighting on Trump’s terrain, and rebuttals are rarely as simple as accusations.

Trump made errors that would have been politically damaging, perhaps even fatal, for a more conventional candidate. Of his claims examined by the fact-checking website Politifact, 69 per cent have been “mostly false” or worse, compared with 26 per cent of Clinton’s. There was, and is, a recklessness to Trump’s claims. In August he claimed he had seen footage – taken at a top-secret location and released by the Iranian government – showing a plane unloading a large amount of cash to Iran from the US government. He hadn’t. He later conceded he’d been mistaken – he’d seen a TV news video that showed a plane during a prisoner release. He claimed the murder rate was at its highest in half a century, “crime at levels that nobody has seen,” when in fact over the last few decades it has substantially reduced. According to the journalist Karen Tumulty, Trump’s instincts were not those of a legislator constrained by consistency and evidence, but of a showman, where what’s happening now and on camera is all that matters.

Trump’s falsehoods were exposed in December 2007, when he appeared under oath in court. Having sued a reporter for what he’d written in a book, Trump was “cornered, out-prepared and under oath” over two days of testimony. Thirty times he was caught having made errors in his deposition. The case, write David A. Fahrenthold and Robert O’Harrow, “offers extraordinary insights into Trump’s relationship with the truth. Trump’s falsehoods were unstrategic – needless, highly specific, easy to disprove.” When caught, he often blamed others, or put the error down to his having taken a more optimistic view.

Reporters can’t subject him to prolonged questioning the way a courtroom lawyer could. On the whole, the mainstream news media did a good job of chasing up Trump’s falsehoods, with fact checkers playing a more active role in this election than ever before. On the other hand, few TV hosts challenged Trump when he made a claim that had already been found to be false. Part of the reason might be that Trump’s confrontational style often puts the media in an invidious position. When they try to call Trump out on a falsehood, writes the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman, “it ends up looking like an argument between Trump and the media, [so] that even Republicans who are sceptical of Trump will get pulled to his side, because they’ve long been invested in the idea that the media are hopelessly infected with liberal bias.” This was “part of a broader assault on almost every institution of public life in America – the government, the media, the education system, even democracy itself… not only spreading lies in a volume that had never been seen before, but continually arguing that established authority couldn’t be trusted.”

Trump is attacking in an atmosphere where the majority have become more cynical. In 2015, a Pew Research Center poll found that 19 per cent of respondents trusted government all or most of the time. In 1964, the figure was 77 per cent. Underlining Waldman’s point, seven in ten Trump supporters believe the government fabricates economic data.

According to a curious line of attack on the media by Trump supporters, “the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously… But a lot of voters think the opposite way. They take Trump seriously but not literally. They don’t believe he will literally build a wall, but do believe he will control immigration.” Perhaps they were surprised, then, when Trump began his presidency trying to build that wall. But in reality this is merely a way of excusing Trump’s policy bankruptcy. It would be a major retreat from democratic accountability if candidates could just simply state an aspiration (national security, prosperity, immigration control) without having to specify how it will be achieved.

Trump’s disregard for accuracy – his willingness to make charges without any supporting evidence – continued into his presidency. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide,” he tweeted in November, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” There is absolutely no evidence of large-scale voter fraud, or evidence that if it exists it all favours Clinton. Again, everyone is chasing on Trump’s territory, and the lie may have strategic value if it leads to further measures making it harder for people to vote in future.

Trump’s business record

Trump was probably the richest person to run for the presidency in recent times, and although he flaunted the trappings of wealth, the exact size of his fortune is a mystery. Moreover, his far-from-exemplary business career has involved six bankruptcies. USA Today, after an extensive research effort, reported that Trump has been involved in 3500 legal actions over the last three decades, or thirty-five each year, an amazing number.

Trump was the first presidential candidate in forty years not to disclose his tax return. This means that there is no official record of his current business holdings and financial interests. The New York Times uncovered his 1995 tax return, which showed Trump declaring a US$900 million loss for the year. The newspaper thought that this amount vastly exceeded any cash losses that Trump would have suffered in the recent collapse of his casino-hotel-airline empire, and would also provide a loophole for not having to pay tax for years to come.

Trump had considerable good luck with the dubious Trump University. A 2013 lawsuit filed by New York’s attorney-general revealed that a quarter of the US$40 million in fees paid by around 5000 students went to Trump himself. In court testimony, reported the New York Times, former managers of the for-profit institution “portray[ed] it as an unscrupulous business that relied on high-pressure sales tactics, employed unqualified instructors, made deceptive claims and exploited vulnerable students willing to pay tens of thousands for Mr Trump’s insights.” It was also revealed that the office of Florida’s attorney-general had announced an investigation, only for it to be shut down after Trump gave a large contribution to her re-election. There was amazingly little follow-up on what was, on the face of it, a bribe.

In June, a judge, Gonzalo Curiel, refused Trump’s attempt to throw the case out. Trump contended that the judge was biased because of his “Mexican heritage.” Trump’s statement was condemned by many Republican leaders, with House Leader Paul Ryan calling it “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Largely ignored was the fact that the judge had made two rulings which helped Trump greatly. He refused to release hours of videotaped testimony by Trump, which would have made compelling and damaging TV. And he postponed the case until late November so that it would not interfere with the presidential election, a decision that saved Trump from considerable embarrassment. In November, Trump settled out of court, agreeing to pay US$25 million.

The quality press did a good job of reporting much of this material, but it never took hold as a major issue, for example by dominating the TV news. Trump was very lucky that these and other squalid business dealings did not become a much bigger and more damaging issue.

Negative news

An interesting vein of criticism has come from the doyen of American political communication scholars, Thomas Patterson. “The real bias of the press is not that it’s liberal,” he writes, “Its bias is a decided preference for the negative… The mainstream press highlights what’s wrong with politics without also telling us what’s right.”

Because “journalists bash both sides,” they might seem neutral in a party sense, he goes on, but “it’s a version of politics that rewards a particular brand of politics.”

When everything and everybody is portrayed as deeply flawed, there’s no sense making distinctions on that score, which works to the advantage of those who are more deeply flawed. Civility and sound proposals are no longer the stuff of headlines, which instead give voice to those who are skilled in the art of destruction… An incessant stream of criticism has a corrosive effect. It needlessly erodes trust in political leaders and institutions and undermines confidence in government and policy.

This results, Patterson argues, in a media environment full of false equivalencies that can mislead voters about the choices they face.

If everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a levelling effect that opens the door to charlatans. The press historically has helped citizens recognise the difference between the earnest politician and the pretender. Today’s news coverage blurs the distinction.

For Patterson, the news media’s emphasis on the negative favours the politics of destruction embodied by a candidate such as Trump. It means that there were no political rewards for constructive proposals or for mastery of policy options.

Tainted news

Apart from all the other unique aspects of the media reporting of the 2016 election, two more novel issues arose: evidence that the Russian government deliberately intervened in the campaign by leaking against the Democrats, and the growing volume of “fake news.”

After the election, the major US intelligence agencies – the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency – joined together to conclude that the Russians had intervened in the election in order to undermine faith in the US democratic process and out of a clear preference for Trump. The intelligence agencies concluded that the Russians had given embarrassing Democratic Party documents to WikiLeaks. They also concluded that Russians hacked the Republicans’ computer system, but did not release any of the information.

Using WikiLeaks, the Russians disrupted the Democratic National Convention by fomenting division between Sanders and Clinton. Then, from 7 October, WikiLeaks began almost daily dumps from Democratic campaign chair John Podesta’s email account, generating a steady stream of negative stories over several weeks. None of these revelations was spectacularly bad, but they were all unflattering.

News media outlets broadly reported the leaks according to the newsworthiness of their revelations, as is their custom. They usually operate on the convenient assumption that, whatever the motive of the leaker, publishing information of nearly any kind adds to the sum of public knowledge, and hence enhances accountability. It would be invidious for them to be suppressing stories because the source was tainted, even if they’d had definite proof at the time.

It is impossible to establish whether and how much the leaks hurt Clinton, but the intervention by FBI director Comey was undoubtedly much more important in accounting for her loss.

“Fake news” was Macquarie’s word of the year for 2016; it is an early favourite to be the most misused cliché of 2017. While it has become a means for politicians to dismiss any unwelcome story, it had a precise origin. It referred to stories that were simply invented for the purpose of meeting a demand that would then earn the story’s perpetrator money.

In 2016, American journalists discovered a truth stranger than fiction: people from the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) had launched at least 140 US politics websites, with American-sounding domain names such as Some of the website publishers told American journalists that their motive was commercial, and they mainly concocted pro-Trump stories because they generated more traffic. Only a few of these invented stories found their way into the mainstream media, but many received huge attention on the internet. One story included a purported 2013 quote from Clinton: “I would like to see people like Donald Trump run for office. They’re honest and can’t be bought.” It received 480,000 shares, reactions and comments in its first week online.

At least some fake news was invented for political as well as commercial motives. One of the most successful of its creators was Cameron Harris, founder of First he crafted the headline “Breaking: Tens of Thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse.” Then he invented the story that they had been found by Randall Prince, a Columbus-area electrical worker and Trump supporter, who had stumbled on the votes in a little-used backroom. Then Harris took a photo from the Birmingham Mail, which showed a balding Briton standing next to some big black plastic boxes labelled “Ballot Box.” The photo and caption seemed to add credibility to the claim: as the New York Times reported, “Within a few days, the story, which had taken him fifteen minutes to concoct, had earned him about $5000.” It was shared by an estimated six million people.

Other fake news stories included an endorsement for Trump by the Pope, which received considerable media coverage as well, and a claim that Clinton would be indicted in 2017. Although most of the Russians’ activity was devoted to hacking emails, they occasionally indulged in fake news as well. They spread alarming diagnoses after Clinton fell ill, and alleged that an anti-Trump protester had been paid thousands of dollars to attend his rallies.

It is impossible to gauge the effect of fake news, but some stories at least were believed. CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota was stunned when, talking to some Trump supporters, she was told that three million “illegals” voted in California. The belief was based on a misleadingly truncated interview with Obama that was put on the internet. In the real interview, Obama says that illegal immigrants cannot vote, but in the “edited” clip he appears to be saying the opposite. Some, like the Trump supporters interviewed, had taken such false stories to heart.

The Balkanising of the electorate

The Trump victory occurred at a time of transition for the media. In the 1970s, the three main US networks’ evening news was watched by three-quarters of the viewing audience; by 2005, this was down to one-third, and the proportion has continued to decline. Not only has total news consumption declined, but the smaller total audience has become more fragmented. Moreover, the newcomers have often been in the business of outrage rather than journalism, overwhelmingly skewed to the right, and intent on reinforcing prejudices. The most commercially successful newcomer has been Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, but there are also Rush Limbaugh and others on talk radio, the Drudge Report and others on the internet.

Among the newest and most notorious of these is Breitbart, whose audience more than doubled from 7.4 million users in September 2014 to 15.8 million two years later. Breitbart supported Trump strongly from the beginning, using fiery but largely fact-free rhetoric. Its publisher, Stephen Bannon, has called Pope Francis a “commie” and accused Catholics of trying to boost Hispanic immigration because their “church is dying.” “Hillary Clinton, in Bannon’s telling, is a ‘grifter’ who would take the country to the ‘last days of Sodom,” observes the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank. Bannon left Breitbart to become Trump’s campaign manager and is now chief strategist in the White House.

An astute observer of these shifts has been Barack Obama. In reflecting on how politics had changed in the last eight years, Obama has argued that a Balkanised media has contributed to the partisan rancour and political polarisation, which he acknowledged had worsened during his tenure. News consumers are now seeking out only what they agree with already, thereby reinforcing their partisan ideology. The president bemoaned the absence of a common baseline of facts underpinning the political debate and accused the Republicans of peddling an alternative reality.

Journalists are now “operating in a new media world – of Twitter, Facebook and the alt-right players who operate on the platforms – in which they are no longer the centre of gravity,” observes the New York Times’s media writer, Jim Rutenberg. Many people find the constant flow of conflicting claims confusing, argues philosopher Michael P. Lynch, and retreat into thinking that “everything is biased, everything conflicts, that there is no way to get out of the Library of Babel.” And increasingly, both because of their own choices and because the internet tends to provide more of what people have already consumed, people operate within a “filter bubble.”

Support for Trump thrives in a sea of ignorance and prejudice that the mainstream media seem powerless to penetrate. In a survey in August, almost half of his supporters said they were not confident that votes would be counted accurately, compared with a fifth of Clinton voters. When, after the election, Trump made the baseless claim that millions of illegal votes were cast, six-in-ten of his supporters believed it, and more than half of them believed that he had won the popular vote – which he lost by 2.9 million votes – as well as the Electoral College. Betraying the parallel political universes they inhabit, 87 per cent of Clinton voters but only 20 per cent of Trump voters believed that Russia hacked Democratic emails to help Trump.

There is an even darker side. Part of the Trump coalition involves prejudice and xenophobia. In South Carolina, 38 per cent of Trump supporters wish the South had won the Civil War; only 24 per cent were glad the North won, with the rest undecided. In addition, 70 per cent of Trump supporters in the state think the Confederate flag should still hang on the state capitol grounds. Similarly the indiscriminate hostility to things Arab was amusingly manifested in a December 2015 poll, which found that 30 per cent of Republican primary voters nationally would support bombing Agrabah. (Agrabah is the fictional country in Aladdin.)

The truth is out there

The performance of the mainstream news media during the 2016 presidential campaign can be criticised on several counts, some more debatable than others. But the much more important problem is that even largely critical media coverage failed to dent Trump’s support, either because many of his voters were immune to media coverage, or because they simply did not consume it.

Post-truth is a political rather than epistemological term. The truth of events has not become more difficult to determine. Rather, it has become politically easier to escape its consequences. While the power of the media has often been seen as a problem in the past, the Trump phenomenon suggests that the media’s lack of power may be an even greater issue for democracy. •

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Let me tell you a story: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in Jakarta soon after becoming prime minister. Ferdi Oktaviano/DFAT

Let me tell you a story: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in Jakarta soon after becoming prime minister. Ferdi Oktaviano/DFAT